The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott,
by Prothero, Stephen 
Reviewed by Matthew Mulligan Goldstein
History of Religions
Vol.37 No.3
Feb 1998
     COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Chicago

            Stephen Prothero performs a minor miracle in The White Buddhist. The
            Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott--he constructs a historical 
            narrative whose careful attention to cultural context does not make 
            the biography's immediate subject, the first U.S. citizen of 
            European descent to convert to Buddhism any less sensational. 
            Between reductive social history and ahistorical romantic 
            individualism, that is, Prothero discovers a third historiographical 
            way, an approach to Olcott's story at once historically grounded and 
            sensitive to personal eccentricity. Further, Prothero, an assistant 
            professor of religion at Boston University, puts recent literary and 
            cultural theory to good use, bringing the work of, among others, 
            Edward Said and Jean-Francois Lyotard to bear on his analysis--a 
            particularly refreshing move in a field too often marked by 
            disciplinary provincialism and critical naivete. 
            Best known in the United States as the first president and 
            cofounder, with the celebrated "Madame" Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 
            of the Theosophical Society, Olcott became a national hero in 
            preindependence Ceylon when in 1880 he took Pansil and immediately 
            launched a campaign against Christian missionaries. Olcott, who grew 
            up Presbyterian in Orange, New Jersey, flirted with spiritualism 
            after making colonel fighting for the Union in the Civil War, then 
            turned theosophist in 1875. Four years after his conversion to 
            theosophy, Olcott and Blavatsky went to India, where they 
            established a new branch of their Theosophical society. The society 
            fared quite well in its new home, attracting the attention and 
            support of such powerful Anglo-Indians as Pioneer editor A. P. 
            Sinnett, and A. O. Hume, former colonial administrator and "father 
            of the Indian National Congress." 
            Prothero argues convincingly that Olcott!s crises of faith and his 
            apparent ideological fickleness, far from being anomalous in 
            Anglo-American Victorian culture, were very much consistent with the 
            religious doubt and epistemological instability of his historical 
            moment. In particular. Prothero demonstrates with countless examples 
            culled from Olcott's diaries and speeches the ways in which the 
            colonel's brand of Theravada Buddhism was in fact little more than a 
            somewhat idiosyncratic synthesis of Protestant-informed pragmatism, 
            theosophical universalism and Buddhist philosophy. 
            To make his point, Prothero borrows from comparative linguistics the 
            notion of creolization, the process by which various languages and 
            dialects come into contact and fuse, generally in a colonial 
            context. Prothero, in what becomes a kind of mantra in the text, 
            develops the linguistics metaphor further, characterizing Olcott's 
            faith as "a `Buddhism' of his own invention--a Buddhist lexicon 
            informed by a Protestant grammar and spoken with a theosophical 
            accent" (p. 69). Creolization proves a useful tool for Prothero, as 
            it form the related issues of imperialism and cultural appropriation 
            into his analysis; there are Phenomena of crucial historical 
            importance too often overlooked by scholars working on Olcott and 
            the Theosophical Society. (See, e.g., Sylvia Cranston's unabashedly 
            hagiographic HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena 
            Blavatsky. Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement [New York: 
            Putnam] and Peter Washington's finely written, if inadequately 
            theorized, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon [London: Secker & Warburg], 
            both published in 1993, neither of which clearly defines the broader 
            sociopolitical and cultural context from which its subject emerged.) 
            Interestingly, sensitive as Prothero is to the issue of cultural 
            imperialism he occasionally betrays surprising Bashes of irritation 
            with Olcott's "stridently anti-Christian position" (p. 65). 
            "Unfortunately," Prothero, laments, "Olcott never explicates ... why 
            he came to see Christianity as an enemy" (p. 64). But isn't the 
            explanation self-evident? There seems to be every reason to believe 
            that the activities of the Christian missionaries, the dependable 
            handmaidens of imperialism, deserved worse than just the "militantly 
            anti-Christian" (p. 64) rhetoric leveled against them by Olcott. 
            Prothero speculates that Olcott's "Christian-bashing" (p. 64) may 
            have been the product of Blavatsky's malignant influence, an 
            expression of the "Modern Unbelief" (p. 65) characteristic of 
            post-Civil War America, or a rhetorical concession to Hindu allies 
            in India who were fighting to protect their culture from predatory 
            Christian evangelicals. The loaded language Prothero uses to 
            describe Olcott's position vis-a-vis Christianity (he talks about 
            the colonel's "anti-Christian propaganda" [p. 65] and "vitriol" [p. 
            82]) is perhaps intended to suggest the hypocrisy of Olcott's 
            profession of universal religious tolerance; at times, though, 
            Prothero's incomprehension seems almost defensive. I would not 
            argue, of course, that the Theosophical Society was innocent of 
            imperial intentions. On the contrary, Olcott, as Prothero argues, 
            clearly projected a species of imperial desire in his development of 
            a Western-style "Buddhist catechism" and his designing of the 
            Buddhist flag. Rather, I am suggesting that Prothero's confusion 
            over Olcott's contempt for Christianity may hint as much at the 
            author's cultural biases as it does at Olcott's. 
            The White Buddhist remain an impressive achievement, despite its 
            author's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his subject's 
            indignation at the morally dubious practices of nineteenth-century 
            Christian missionaries. And while Prothero may be faulted for 
            overstating his central thesis about Olcott's faith--namely, that it 
            may be glossed as "a Buddhist lexicon informed by a Protestant 
            grammar and spoken with a theosophical accent" (p. 69)--it is clever 
            and apt enough a metaphorical description of the colonel's 
            peculiarly heterogeneous belief system to bear the repetition. 
            Further, Prothero's volume is meticulously footnoted and includes 
            seven subject bibliographies and a thorough index; this, in 
            combination with its engaging narrative and lively theoretical 
            insights, makes The White Buddhist a marvelous reference tool for 
            scholars of history, religion, and cultural studies alike.